Wall Street Journal on August 3, 2015, published a commentary by Christopher Walker on how the West has underestimated threats to freedom after the Cold War victory. For the democracies to triumph in the long battle against Soviet communism enormous commitment was necessary. Both geopolitical and ideological, the struggle called for military investment, patience and resolve. As crucially, this challenge required a reserve of imagination for understanding and responding to the Soviet challenge with the ideas, media instruments and technology that were part of the democratic world’s natural competitive advantage. Excerpts below:

In the aftermath of this exacting project, the United States and other established democracies exhaled, believing in the post-Cold War period that the world had indelibly changed and the forces of illiberalism were defeated.

Given the extent of the investment and duration of the struggle, the impulse to relax was understandable. With hindsight, however, a harsh reality has become clear: The democratic West won the Cold War but in the process lost its political imagination.

Today, a set of anti-democratic forces that we have found to be beyond the realm of our imagination have gathered momentum and are seeking to reshape the world order.

Take Russia’s resurgence. Only a few years ago it would have seemed far-fetched that Moscow would forcibly annex Crimea and instigate a bloody war in eastern Ukraine resulting in massive destruction and thousands of deaths.

Then again, in August 1991 few could envisage that only eight years later a former KGB colonel would come to power, remain Russia’s paramount leader for a decade and a half, and possibly keep his grip on the country for many more years.

While the boundaries of the West’s imagination have receded, those of illiberal powers have expanded. The Internet era was supposed to ensure that dictators would no longer dominate what their people know and think. But Vladimir Putin has built a modern propaganda machine that has enabled the brainwashing and militarization of Russian society, while paralyzing the West’s ability to respond to the Kremlin’s ambition to upend the European order.

Meanwhile, China has turned assumptions about its presumed trajectory upside-down. The Chinese Communist Party has put the country’s vast economic wealth in the service of refurbishing state repression instead of on liberalization.

It is unfathomable to people living in free societies that the Chinese authorities can censor with such acumen that the majority of their more than 1.3 billion countrymen do not know the truth about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Asked 15 years ago about the Chinese Communist Party’s ambitions to censor the Internet, former U.S. President Bill Clinton was incredulous, famously replying that such an effort would be like trying to “nail Jell-O to the wall.” Mr. Clinton, like other Western leaders, failed to imagine the determination of the autocrats in China…

Using globalization to their advantage, these repressive states have succeeded in inducing self-censorship in their Western partners, thus resetting norms of free expression for academia, think tanks, business and media that have far too willingly checked their standards at the door when entering these countries.

Powerful, illiberal nonstate actors have defied our imagination as well. In the Middle East, Islamic State has shown striking imagination in using modern technology to create what some call “the Digital Caliphate” to propel its sinister vision throughout cyberspace and recruit more people to its ranks.

This new challenge to the West is not as clear-cut as the old one was during the Cold War. Today there are a multitude of anti-democratic forces. This constellation makes for a more complex and pernicious danger, the analysis of which is more complicated.

So it is that even after more than a year of war in Ukraine, many find it hard to imagine that the Kremlin’s ambitions might go further. The U.S. and European Union still cannot conceive that Russia’s current level of menace toward the Baltic states, for instance, could evolve into something even more perilous.

The languid, complacent approach into which the democratic world has settled in recent years is not suited to the hostile environment for liberal values that has emerged. Without a renewal of purpose in the West and a positive vision from the democracies, the world’s fate will be left to the fertile imagination of others.

Mr. Walker is the executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.


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